Q: When my 2-year-old gets really angry and has a tantrum, she will bump her head against the wall. This is really upsetting to us and we usually end up just giving in and letting her have her way because we don't want her to hurt herself. I'm worried we're setting a bad precedent.
A: Who could blame you for giving in? It is very upsetting to see your child hurt herself. Extreme reactions like this make limit-setting even more difficult. From your daughter’s point of view, her behavior works, which makes it less likely she will give it up.
First, it is important to note that pediatricians assert that 2-year-olds cannot bump their heads with enough force to cause them any harm, unless they are bumping against sharp surfaces like the edge of the table. So, if you feel assured that your daughter is not going to hurt herself, you can ignore the behavior. For some children, once they discover that a behavior does not get the reaction they were seeking (especially a behavior that hurts), they stop. Other children—based on their temperament and intensity level—may just hit their heads harder and longer than you are comfortable with. In this case, you might want to find a safe way for them to continue the behavior (for example, putting a pillow under their head or move them to a carpeted area). Then ignore it.
It’s also critical to acknowledge your daughter’s feelings. Helping her recognize when she is angry is the first step in teaching her how to manage these feelings. For example, if she throws a tantrum because you are setting a limit about TV watching, you might say: I know you are really mad that you can’t watch another video. It’s okay to feel mad. But that’s the rule. When you are done being mad, we can draw together. Giving her an image of a fun activity she can do next can help focus and calm her down.
Then go about your business while staying close to keep an eye on her. (You might leave her “lovey” or another favorite object next to her while she tantrums so it is there if/when she needs it to soothe herself.) When she does calm down, give her lots of credit for doing such a good job pulling herself together. Soothing oneself is indeed a very important life skill that you help her learn by giving her the chance to calm down on her own. After you consistently respond in this way a few times, she will likely give up the head bumping simply because it isn’t getting her what she wants.
Later, during a calm moment in your day, you might also talk with your daughter and let her know that everyone gets angry and that feeling angry is okay. Then brainstorm with her different ways she can express her anger. This helps her learn other, more acceptable ways of coping. For example, she can stomp her feet, draw an angry picture, or tear up newspaper. The mistake parents often make is being afraid of their children’s anger, which can lead to squelching those feelings. Instead, look at these “teachable moments” as opportunities to help your daughter learn how to manage difficult feelings in healthy ways.